The Enduring Impact of Syrio Forel: a Con of Thrones Interview with Miltos Yerolemou

Arya-Syrio-game-of-thrones-21649272-1024-576At this year’s Con of Thrones, I had the opportunity to speak with Miltos Yerolemou, who is an absolute delight, not to mention a self-professed “big fan” of our own Night’s Cast podcast! We discussed Syrio’s impact on Arya Stark as well as Syrio’s enduring popularity within the fandom, owing, in part to the many fan theories surrounding the beloved dancing master.

Ever since Syrio’s ambiguous exit from Game of Thrones in season 1, fans have debated his fate: is he dead? Is he alive? Is he a faceless man of Braavos? Is he Jaqen H’ghar? The way Yerolemou sees it, these questions kind of miss the point. What matters is that Arya never learned what happened to Syrio and thus could never find closure.

“The point is that in Arya’s mind, Syrio is very much alive,” Yerolemou says, “In the same way that Jaqen and Sandor are … and of course her father: the four people who had a very profound influence on her.”

At the same time, Yerolemou concedes that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did sort of troll fan theorists (“I’m joking, I’m joking. Not trolling,” he adds) when they gave Syrio his now famous and deliciously meme-able line: “What do we say to the god of death? Not today.”

“Syrio never mentions the god of death at all in the books,” Yerolemou points out. “As far as we’re concerned with the book character he is simply a bodyguard to the king or queen of Braavos. But then [Benioff and Weiss] put this scene in where he directly references this religious cult and, of course, it feels like, ‘Everyone who thinks that he might be Jaqen H’ghar, we’ve just given you a really big hint that maybe he is.’ I mean, that’s what it felt like.”

However we choose to interpret Syrio’s fate and identity, the First Sword of Braavos indisputably had a huge impact on Arya and shaped who she became.

“I love the bit [in season 8, episode 3, “The Long Night”] where the Hound is so scared he’s literally going ‘You can’t fight death’ during the battle and Beric goes, ‘try telling her.’ That’s so brilliant!” Yerolemou says. “This person who … finds a way through the fear and just stoically goes ‘I’m going to confront it’ … that’s all part of her story, the people who have influenced her.”

Swordplay was a pivotal part of Syrio and, consequently, Arya’s stories and Yerolemou speaks highly of Game of Thrones’ approach to fight choreography.

“The thing that I think I like the most and the thing that connects with me the most is ‘how do you create something that feels authentic?’” he says. “What I really like about how we approach sword fighting now when we create shows in this day and age … is [that it reflects] what really does happen in a duel.”

Miltos Yerolemou Con of Thrones 2018

Miltos, waterdancing at Con of Thrones 2018

Moreover, figuring out how cultural background informs combat style i.e. “what does the Water Dance look like?” was a collaborative experience, as Yerolemou found when he and Maisie Williams showed Benioff and Weiss the choreography that they had worked out with fight choreographer, William Hobbs.

“They loved what we created and the only comment they made was just to make it a bit more dance-y,” Yerolemou says. “So we put a couple of spins in it because, while “dancing master” is a code, the Water Dance is still a dance.”

Lastly, I got to ask a Yerolemou a question that I had been harboring ever since my first viewing of season 1: how did he develop Syrio’s Braavosi accent?

“That was me doing an impersonation of my father who is Greek Cypriot,” Yerolemou answers. “And then me trying to change it enough so that you can’t tell if it’s a Greek accent or an Italian accent or a Spanish accent. Because I wanted it to sound like it was from a made-up land so I didn’t want it to be too specific. So I overly rolled my r’s. Sometimes when I watch it back and I go, ‘Oh God, what was I thinking?'”

27 responses

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    1. Love me some Miltos Yerolemou! That glorious hair – and the accent was pitch perfect, IMHO. Wishing him much milage from his part in the Thrones-iverse.

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    2. When you think about it, the fact that Miltos Yerolemouis is still relevant person and gives interviews says how crazy successful this show is.

      Don’t get me wrong, I really like him and his character and I love that he is still relevant, but he is character that had like 3 or 4 scenes in S1 but his impact on the story is still there. And people still love him and care about him. It’s crazy. In a positive way.

      Can you imagine that for any other show that lasted 8 seasons? That people would still care for some minor character that died in S1. But even extras on GoT became stars. It’s crazy. And I love it.

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    3. One thing I’m actually glad D & D avoided doing was bringing Syrio back for some lame fan service moment. I never would have thought they would’ve done it in the earlier seasons unless they had a good reason, but in the latter seasons, all bets were off.

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    4. Syrio had a massive impact on Arya’s storyline, not only being the one to essentially send her to Braavos, but in helping form her character. Miltos Yerolemou’s acting had a lot to do with it. I can’t imagine another actor being so memorable. His performance chemistry with Masie, who was still a little girl, was outstanding.

      In other news, I saw Theon on Harlots. He is killing it. LOVE seeing actors thrive in a post-GOT world.

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    5. Thank you Petra for this great interview! Miltos seems so lovely!

      “Is he alive? Is he a faceless man of Braavos? Is he Jaqen H’ghar? The way Yerolemou sees it, these questions kind of miss the point. What matters is that Arya never learned what happened to Syrio and thus could never find closure.”

      I love this perspective. While I do have many tinfoil theories regarding ASOIAF, Syrio being a faceless man is not one of them. I rather see him as a gateway to Arya’s journey. He was someone to introduce her to Braavos and Braavosi “water dancing.”

      Sidenote, in case anyone was interested, here’s the GoT panel from SDCC:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpZ__MKeX70

      Conleth is a laugh riot (his response begins around 11:30)
      – How are you feeling about the end of Varys?”
      – Well, I don’t regret starting the petition. 😂😂

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    6. Syrio Forel, One of the characters I liked better in the show then the books. Thanks Miltos.

      Dark Sister,

      Conleth is always the most funny of them all. Remember that bit when he talked about a crazy fan, touching his balls to feel if they were still there, and he said something like: Since then I never saw my mother again.
      Very funny guy.

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    7. Dark Sister,

      The convention was a glorified (scripted) interview without audience questions, most questions were the same as the interview with Entertainment Weekly.

      Seth Rogen is the prince we were promise.

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    8. Dark Sister,

      Is he alive? Is he a faceless man of Braavos? Is he Jaqen H’ghar? The way Yerolemou sees it, these questions kind of miss the point. What matters is that Arya never learned what happened to Syrio and thus could never find closure.”

      _________

      Interesting.
      Arya didn’t seem uncertain about what happened to Syrio when she turned Meryn F*cking Trant’s face into Swiss cheese and then explained to him why she did it – before the coup de grace throat slit. I thought she found “closure” in her own inimitable style:

      (From S5e10):
      Arya v. Pedo-Sadist MFT

      Arya: “You were the first person on my list, you know. For killing Syrio Forel.. Remember him? Probably not. I’ve gotten a few of the others. The Many-Faced God stole a few more from me. I’m glad he left me you.
      Do you know who I am? I can’t hear you.
      Do you know who I am? I’m Arya Stark.
      Do you know who you are? You’re no one.
      You’re nothing.”

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    9. LatrineDiggerBrian:
      One thing I’m actually glad D & D avoided doing was bringing Syrio back for some lame fan service moment…

      • Bringing him back would have completely ruined Syria’s heroic self-sacrifice, and diluted the emotional impact of his final lines to a terrified little Arya:

      Arya: “Come with me! Run!”
      Syrio: “The First Sword of Braavos does not run.”
      (After MFT breaks Syria’s wooden sword)
      Syrio: “What do we say to the God of Death?”
      Arya (meekly): “Not today.”
      Syrio: “Go.”

      • Bringing Syrio back would’ve turned Arya’s revenge speech in S5e10 [dialogue in my 12:52 pm comment above] into an “oops, my bad” moment.

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    10. Ten Bears,

      You’re right, Arya most definitely knew what happened to him. Maybe that sentence speaks more towards the viewers who never actually got to see Syrio killed on screen, hence the theories haha. But it all happened so quickly for Arya to get closure as well. And she most definitely got that in Braavos. It cost her her eyesight for a bit but #WorthIt

      kevin1989,

      I’ve never seen that! Must look it up. Honestly, he sort of stole the panel for me.

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    11. Thank you Petra for your interview. MY sounds like a delightful man who did wonders with Maisie to develop what should have been a brief onscreen relationship into an unforgettable bond. Syrio had such an amazing impact on Arya’s journey. She honoured him but took herself to the pinnacle.

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    12. MotherofWolves,

      Great acting and great dialogue! Thanks to Syrio, from his three (?) scenes in S1 we got iconic lines that echoed throughout the eight-season run – and thereafter, e.g.:

      (After Arya doesn’t want to practice because Jory was killed and Ned was hurt)
      Syrio: “Do you pray to the gods?”
      Arya: “The old and the new.”
      Syrio: “There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘Not today’.”
      ***
      (Last scene):
      Syrio: “What do we say to the God of Death?”
      Arya: “Not today.”

      There were callbacks to Syrio long after he was gone, including Jaqen 2.0 [not verbatim] “There is only one god. A girl knows his name.”

      And of course, Melisandre in S8e3:
      Melisandre: “What do we say to the God of Death?”
      Arya: “Not today.”

      All hail Syrio Forel! The greatest swordsman who ever lived!

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    13. Syrio, in my opinion, is the single most memorable characterization for a short-term character in the entire book series. I’m glad he made it into the show in the form of Miltos. It was that episode that sold me on the series and permitted me to paper over some of the poorly adapted/purely invented bits that didn’t quite work out. Although it was downhill from then on similar singular scenes kept me hooked enough to wade through Seasons 7 and 8 for more good bits. Scenes like Hardhome, Jon alone in front of the Bolton charge, the candle being sliced, Sansa pulling back and then leaning back in during Ramsey’s end and that little smile, gods what a show!

      “Which one of you heroes shit in me pants?” golden.

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    14. Ten Bears,

      But she still didn’t visually confirm that he was killed (much like the Hound). And Meryn Trount didn’t get a chance to respond to her statement, though he probably would’ve lied anyway if Syrio had escaped.

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    15. LatrineDiggerBrian,

      Okay. I get your point.
      In addition to S5s10, there’s also this from S4e5 (Arya tells Sandor that Syrio was killed by MFT)

      Sandor: “The hell you doing?”
      Arya: “Practicing.”
      Sandor: “What, ways to die?”
      Arya: “No one’s going to kill me.”
      Sandor: “They will if you nance around like that. That’s no way to fight.”
      Arya: “It’s not fighting. It’s water dancing.”
      Sandor: “Dancing? Maybe you ought to put on a dress. Who taught you that shite?”
      Arya: “The greatest swordsman who ever lived. Syrio Forel, the First Sword to the Sealord of Braavos.”
      Sandor: “Braavos. Greasy-haired little bastard, I bet. They all are.”
      Arya: “What do you know about anything?!”
      Sandor: “I bet his hair is greasier than Joffrey’s c*nt.”
      Arya: “It was not.”
      Sandor: “Was? He’s dead?”
      Arya: “Yes.”
      Sandor: “How?”
      Arya: “He was killed.”
      Sandor: “Who by?”
      Arya: “Meryn Trant.” That’s why Ser Meryn–”
      Sandor: “Meryn Trant? The greatest swordsman who ever lived killed by Meryn F*cking Trant?”
      Arya: “He was outnumbered.”
      Sandor: “Any boy whore with a sword could beat three Meryn Trants.”
      Arya: “Syrio didn’t have a sword. Or armor. Just a stick.”
      Sandor: “The greatest swordsman who ever lived didn’t have a sword? (Sandor giggles.) All right. You have a sword. Let’s see what he taught you. Go on, do it for your Braavosi friend. Dead like all the rest of your friends.”
      (She twirls, unsuccessfully tries to thrust Needle into his torso. Sandor smacks her to the ground.)
      Sandor: “Your friend’s dead and Meryn Trant’s not because Trant had armor and a big f*cking sword.”
      (Sandor gives Needle back to Arya, then walks away.)

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    16. Ten Bears:
      LatrineDiggerBrian,

      Okay. I get your point.
      In addition to S5s10, there’s also this from S4e5 (Arya tells Sandor that Syrio was killed by MFT)

      Sandor: “The hell you doing?”
      Arya: “Practicing.”
      Sandor: “What, ways to die?”
      Arya: “No one’s going to kill me.”
      Sandor: “They will if you nance around like that. That’s no way to fight.”
      Arya: “It’s not fighting. It’s water dancing.”
      Sandor: “Dancing? Maybe you ought to put on a dress. Who taught you that shite?”
      Arya: “The greatest swordsman who ever lived. Syrio Forel, the First Sword to the Sealord of Braavos.”
      Sandor: “Braavos. Greasy-haired little bastard, I bet. They all are.”
      Arya: “What do you know about anything?!”
      Sandor: “I bet his hair is greasier than Joffrey’s c*nt.”
      Arya: “It was not.”
      Sandor: “Was? He’s dead?”
      Arya: “Yes.”
      Sandor: “How?”
      Arya: “He was killed.”
      Sandor: “Who by?”
      Arya: “Meryn Trant.” That’s why Ser Meryn–”
      Sandor: “Meryn Trant? The greatest swordsman who ever lived killed by Meryn F*cking Trant?”
      Arya: “He was outnumbered.”
      Sandor: “Any boy whore with a sword could beat three Meryn Trants.”
      Arya: “Syrio didn’t have a sword. Or armor. Just a stick.”
      Sandor: “The greatest swordsman who ever lived didn’t have a sword? (Sandor giggles.) All right. You have a sword. Let’s see what he taught you. Go on, do it for your Braavosi friend. Dead like all the rest of your friends.”
      (She twirls, unsuccessfully tries to thrust Needle into his torso. Sandor smacks her to the ground.)
      Sandor: “Your friend’s dead and Meryn Trant’s not because Trant had armor and a big f*cking sword.”
      (Sandor gives Needle back to Arya, then walks away.)

      Talking about armor, why would the Night King be wearing such a crap armour? He must know he is the weak link for his entire army. One would think he has at least as good armour/chain mail as Hound. He has seen Jon wield a dangerous sword yet he was dressed in this costume.

      And how did Arya know that his armour had such openings or was so short? She leapt over a group of folks, into his grasp, miraculously he did not simply simultaneously crush her trachea when he grabbed her. What was NK looking at instead of crushing Arya’s trachea upon impact? We are to believe she had time to assess his clothing, right?

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    17. Ten Bears,

      But it’s the same thing imo. Arya being a cynic and assuming the worst though she never saw him killed. Now if the Hound had confirmed it, then OK, yes, because the Hound was still in King’s Landing and might have heard about it or seen the body. Actually, the fact that the Hound doesn’t know he’s dead would indicate he’s probably alive since Meryn Trant and he were Kingsguard, they definitely would’ve talked about that or he would’ve heard about it.

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    18. Grandmaester Flash:
      Mango,
      Over-confidence.

      (i) Do you mean Arya’s overconfidence or the NK’s overconfidence?

      (ii) Since NK is the baddie, I assume you think GOT went for the “death by overconfidence for the baddie” that we see in trash TV/movies. I suppose this makes it no worse than many other programs.

      (iii) Often in these programs, it helps the baddie and our hero meet several times beforehand and the hero gains an understanding of the baddie and can use that to defeat them. This supports the final “death by overconfident baddie” event.

      (iv) I do not think we got a strong characterization of the NK but what little we got suggested a somewhat cautious/tactical fellow. At Hardhome and BtheWall, he stayed out of the battle and was always guarded by WW. We also saw he was extremely strong – he threw a hand missile that killed a dragon. The exchange between Jaime/Bran/Jon also indicates that NK would tactically remain hidden unless he was baited. So not reckless. Eventually, NK went for the bait under a full guarding team of WW. Yet, he wore his frilly bikini armour into battle. Odd or overconfidence?

      (v) When attacked by air he does not grab his attacker with defensive force. This was during a battle with folk he knows have dangerous swords. He must have considered it a threat. Overconfidence or just odd?.

      (vi) Arya, in contrast, did not seem to have had any plan to fight the NK until Mel suggested it. Yet she leapt through the air and jumped upon the NK body without ever having seen him before or having any personal knowledge of the NK’s abilities. Or knowing that he was wearing less armour than Hound had. This could be seen as overconfident/reckless on Arya’s side.

      (v) I vaguely wondered why they did not use her face switching skill – it would pull together her skills and her theme re death. In her kills of Trant & Frey, Arya used some subterfuge although she was not as elegant as Jaquen’s kills. But in fighting the most dangerous foe at all, she just leapt on its back and boom. Seems so simple after 7 seasons of hearing how bad the threat.

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